Patricia Burke Brogan joined the noviciate of the Mercy Sisters at the convent of St Vincent, Newtownsmith, Galway at the end of the 1950s. It was before the reforms of Vatican II had relaxed rule of the heavy medieval habit, the shorn hair, and a constant reminder ‘to keep custody of the eyes’. What was called ‘discipline’, which was nothing less than outrageous bullying, was meted out on the novices by some of the older nuns, in a cutting and wounding way. The nuns were hard on each other.
Deeply upset by the treatment of the Magdalen women at Forster Street, Patricia left the convent. But not before appearing before Bishop Michael Browne, and three senior members of the order, in one final ordeal. She had asked to leave six months before, but was told she had to wait for permission from the Vatican, and warned that if she told anyone of her intentions it would be a mortal sin!
This delay, however, was not necessary. Patricia could have walked away at any time. However, she waited the prescribed time, and gladly signed her departure form (with the Bishop’s own gold pen ), which included a fee of £50 to be paid to the bishop ‘for his presence’ on that occasion.
Its probable the nuns were glad to be rid of her. She was a bit of a rebel. For three years, ‘keeping custody of the eyes’, she cleaned and polished corridors, washed and chopped vegetables, and carved the meat for the following day. One day, while re-heating dinners in the refectory, she decided to put the best slices of meat under the novices’ plate-covers. “ The superiors at the top tables have vows of poverty so they should practice poverty. Novices are the future members of this congregation, and need extra nourishment.” she remarked to another novice.
Without a word being said, Patricia was ordered to different duties the next day.
Dancing in Gort
Leaving the convent Patricia was warned that she would never get a job in the diocese. Yet as a fully qualified teacher, she had little difficulty. She became the mhúinteoir of the little national school at Ballinderreen, on the edge of the Burren, and enjoyed happy years teaching art and stories to the imaginative children there. National schools were extremely relaxed places at the time. Visitors would pop in and out. A frequent visitor was lady Christabel Ampthill, who came to live in Kinvara castle to escape from the publicity of the notorious Russell Baby Case of 1922. It was proved that despite her being virgo intacta, she had given birth to a son. Her husband sued her for a divorce.*
She was an expert horsewoman, and would ride up to the school and invite all the children to a party at the castle.
Another visitor, but properly so, was the parish priest. He would ask Patricia to buy him a pair of new shoes in Galway. He couldn’t understand how rapidly they were being worn down. He did not know that when he put his shoes outside the bedroom on a Saturday night to be polished, his housekeeper quietly took them for her boyfriend so they could go wild dancing in Gort.
Apart from the plight of the Magdalen women, there was one particular incident in the early days of Patricia’s noviciate that prompted her to reconsider her vocation. It was a very simple one; but an intimate family tradition at Christmas time was not appreciated in her community, and immediately left Patricia feeling isolated rather than part of her new ‘family’.
An elderly friend Mikey Walsh, always brought them from his land, a Christmas tree every Christmas Eve. But when Patricia joined the convent he cut a larger than usual tree, brought it into Galway on the bus, and carried it to the door of the convent.
Patricia was polishing the long corridor floor when she was summoned to the Mother of Novices’ office. She was told that a Mikey Walsh had brought a tree for her but it was not acceptable ‘to entertain strange men in the convent’. The tree was left outside in the garden. She could look at it from the window just this once.
There was the tree lying on its side in the earth.
‘Could we not have offered Mikey a cup of tea? Asked Patricia, ‘We always gave him tea and cake at home.’
The Mother shook her head. ‘ You may return to your work in the long corridor now, Sister’.
Some days later a letter from her father was handed to her already opened and read. It was all about Mikey who returned home puzzled by his reception. He had managed to get the tree into a hackney cab as far as the nearest Longford-Galway bus stop. He was allowed stand the tree at the end of the bus for the 25 miles to Galway. The poor man carried the tree all the way to the Salmon Weir Bridge, and rang the convent door bell. After some time a sister opened the door. ‘ I have a present here for Sister Patricia,’ said Mikey, ‘ all the way from Cooloo,’
Without a word, the tree was taken inside. The door was shut.
As Patricia went back to her polishing the long corridor she wondered if the tree would take root in the earth outside. She instinctively felt that she would not take root in the convent. **
NOTES: * I have written several times about this intriguing case. DNA testing was later to prove that the baby was the legitimate son of Lady Ampthill’s husband. The mystery was how the child was conceived. In 1976 the House of Lords agreed that the boy, Geoffrey, could succeed to his father’s title as Fourth Baron Ampthill.
** I am taking the story of the last three weeks from Patricia’s Memoir with Grykes and Turloughs, published this week and on sale €18.